Tara har erfaring med en barndom i slankehelvede

I dag er hun tykaktivist og kæmper for at gøre Island til et tykpositivt sted. FedFront har fået lov at bringe Taras egen historie om at gå fra at være et spiseforstyrret barn til at blive en voksen, som både er glad for egen krop og vred på det tykfobiske samfunds undertrykkende strukturer.

The illusions of the dieting industry

Have you ever heard the phrase that your body is a temple? I think most of us have, most likely in connection with some dieting/health programs. When I think about a temple I think about something that is beautiful and holy. And I never really understood the phrase because for the biggest part of my life my body felt like a prison.

I was 11 years old when I was enrolled in my first fat burning boot camp hosted by a known dieting guru. It mostly involved spinning, learning to count calories and keeping a food diary. The kid that lost the most weight by the end of the camp was declared the winner. Sound familiar? At 12 years old I started using Herbalife and chewed only one meal per day. At 13 years old I got an exemption from young age to enroll in an 8-week weight loss challenge at my local gym. I ended up doing the challenge three times. As a part of the challenge we were regularly taken to a back room of the gym where we were weighed, prodded and measured. At the end of one of the challenges it turned out that my body fat percentage hadn´t changed one bit since I started the challenge. The instructor looked at me, not with pity but with disdain. What was I even doing there if I didn´t take this seriously? Then she advised me to seek advice from a dietician. I was utterly distraught as I had been torturing myself for the past 8 weeks to see what “success” on the scale looked like. After a lot of emotional turmoil I demanded to be measured again a week later. According to those measurements I had been the most successful dieter out of all the other women that participated in the challenge. Maybe my menstrual cycle had a confusing effect or maybe the instrument that was used to measure my body fat percentage was a piece of junk. In retrospect I kinda think the latter explanation makes more sense.

In my teenage years I didn't sneak out to meet my friends at night. I´d rather spend all my free time in the gym, going to the classes that burned the most amount of calories. When I was 14 years old I called different chocolate manufactures to determine which chocolate easter egg had the fewest calories. Sometimes I drank so much water in such a short period of time that it physically hurt and I couldn't move. You see, I had heard somewhere that drinking water “flushed” out your fat cells. Every single night before bed I went through my Victoria´s Secret catalogues, scanning the models’ bodies, promising myself that one day I would become just like them.

Why? Because as long as I could remember I had been surrounded by societal messages telling me that I could never be happy, healthy or successful if I wasn't thin. Everything in my life was doomed to fail as long as I lived that life in a fat body. And everyone and everything around me further solidified that message. I learned that fat bodies were completely unacceptable and that no means were too extreme to achieve a thin body. If you´re hoping that the situation is better now than when I began dieting 18 years ago you´re sadly mistaken. Studies show that in 2007 a third of Icelandic teenagers in the 9th and 10th grade had dieted at least once that year. 80% of Icelandic women between 18-79 years old are dissatisfied with their body. These attitudes are just as prevalent today as they were when I was a teenager. The only difference is that a couple of years ago advertisers realised they were only taking advantage of 50 percent of the population and decided to do something about it. Men´s body image has been on a steady decline for the past decade.

Dieting is the single biggest risk factor for the development of eating disorders. I began starving myself and throwing up after meals when I was 16 years old. Shortly after that I was admitted to the Child and Adolescent Department of the National University Hospital of Iceland with a diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa. I would be a patient of the psychiatric departments until I was 20 years old. The therapists vehemently tried to get me to reject the “delusions” I was so plagued by. Those ideas and attitudes were the same ones I have already listed; that I could only be happy and successful if I was thin. When I was fat those attitudes were mere common sense used for motivation. The hypocrisy of those who had encouraged me, all my life, to attain the thin body that I now finally possessed, made me resist their efforts even more. “You finally got what you wanted and you´re still unhappy?”, I thought. The fear of fat and eating disorders are just two sides on the same coin. You can´t both fight negative body image and eating disorders and at the same time participate in a war on bodies that are construed as incompatible with today´s beauty standards. Because it doesn't matter how you say it, think it or present it; ff we believe that being healthy depends on having a thin body it will always be about the way you look. Don't kid yourself.

Eventually my body started fighting my self-imposed famine. Homeostasis is a concept we all learn about in elementary school in Iceland. It describes our bodies’ resistance to change and how it works around the clock to keep different metrics, like white blood cell count and temperature, within a certain span. We accept this concept as fact. As a matter of fact homeostasis is a universal law of nature. Except when it comes to fat people. Fat people can only blame their fatness on themselves and their laziness, greed and/or lack of self discipline. Fat people have been on far the most diets and they have battled the most wars with their own bodies. The discipline, sheer will and self control required for that is extraordinary. These people aren´t failing their diets, their diets are failing them. It is a scientific fact that weight loss in the excess of a few pounds is a delusion. We can´t change laws of nature no matter how hard we try.

In 2010 I became acquainted with new ideas and new approaches to health and weight. I learned about fat phobia and weight stigma, and how those forces sustain a status quo and serve an industry that makes $60billion a year in the US alone. I stopped interpreting systemic discrimination as a sign that something was wrong with my body and started seeing it as a sign there was something wrong with the system. I educated myself in fat studies, which is a scientific and critical approach to conventional discourse on beauty, health and bodies. I wrote articles for papers and the internet, met courageous women with whom I founded the Icelandic Association for Body Respect, took a year off to write my MA dissertation on fat phobia and the discrimination it entails and began challenging the rules society had created for fat people.

You see, the “good” fat people are supposed to hate their bodies. They should do everything in their power to make it smaller. Every and any means to reach that goal is acceptable whether it involves systematic starvation, wiring our jaws shut, planting a device in our stomach that lets us mimic bulimia or take drugs that help us lose 5-10 pounds at the most but increase our risk of “obesity-related” diseases, such as high blood pressure. Eating disorders are acceptable and even encouraged in fat people. The further we take our dieting attempts and the more open we are about how we need to “get a grip”, the more approval we can expect to get from society at large. That’s why so many fat people are active participators in their own repression. “Good” fat people are just trying to gain approval within a society that calls them freaks, an epidemic that needs to be eradicated and declared war upon. You don´t really need a degree in psychology to realise that these attitudes are not likely to lead to increased well-being or health. And we do all of this in the name of “health”. Health is a lot more extensive a concept than just our blood pressure or blood sugar measurements. Medical science is constantly evolving and most of us agree that our mental and physical health are strongly intertwined. Being fat in a society that hates fat people and being dissatisfied with your body is one of the biggest stressors on contemporary society.

As soon as I uncovered the way society hates fat people, I began my recovery in earnest. I began seeing my body in a different light, I started contextualising my body and my experience within our fat phobic culture and what that entails. And I stopped dieting. I stopped trying to change my body and decided to take care of it and love it instead because I finally realised that the cliché “you don´t take good care of what you don´t care about” is true. I stopped obeying rules on what, when and how much I should eat and started listening to my natural hunger- and satiety cues. My diet today is the most balanced I have ever experienced. I began moving my body, not to burn calories or tone my thighs, but to experience the joy that the movement of my body gives me. I never could have imagined how much I stood to gain by moving my body for another purpose than as a punishment for my perceived sins. I started dressing myself the way I wanted to instead of following rules that dictate what is acceptable for fat women to wear. In other words, I disobeyed the societal rules for fat people. And I have never been physically or mentally healthier. I have never been happier or more confident. I have never had such a positive and strong connection to my body. My self-image and my body-image have never been as strong.

The promises the dieting industry gave me didn't come true until I challenged and rejected their way of achieving them. I unveiled the bullshit. And I will continue doing just that, for myself and others. It shouldn't be such a long and difficult process to begin loving and taking care of your body. In fact it shouldn't be a process at all. This fight is about human rights. Because feeling at peace with your own body is a basic need, fundamental for everything else in our lives. Without that peace we can never hope to become whole.

A few days ago I woke up and thought about that phrase again; your body is a temple. And I realised that I finally knew what it meant.

Tara Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir